Very Heath Robinson

17th July 2017

Jill Glenn reviews 'Very Heath Robinson: Stories of his Absurdly Ingenious World' by Adam Hart-Davis

‘Very Heath Robinson’, my father was fond of saying, sniffily, about any intricate or haphazard contraption only loosely fit for purpose. Secretly, of course, he rather admired the ludicrous gadgetry of the Pinner-based artist, whose ingenious ideas boosted a nation demoralised by war and want.

Now a lavish new publication from Sheldrake Press, authored by Adam Hart-Davis (of ‘What the Romans Did for Us’ fame) takes the phrase as its inspiration – and its title – for an expansive look at the rich, imaginative world of William Heath Robinson (1872-1944).

WHR saw himself as a serious artist, and a visit to the museum that bears his name in Pinner reveals wonderfully accomplished work in a variety of genres. It’s ironic that he is best remembered for the humorous illustrations that he began simply in order to make ends meet. Ironic, but not surprising. These drawings still make you laugh.

Here we have mad, mechanical gadgets designed to simplify (or not) your life, at home and in public. Chapter 1, Ideas for Domestic Bliss, offers an automatic candle-extinguishing bed, and an inflatable water deepened to ensure a bath is still pleasant even when there’s a water shortage. ‘Manners Maketh Man’, a section of Chapter 2 (Keeping Up Appearances), features an automatic hat-raiser for popular people, and a mobile mannequin for ‘training a husband in an act of common courtesy.’ There’s a particularly entertaining section on sports and pastimes, with devices to help one learn to swim at home, and a pair of concertina trousers to facilitate bending over to take a putt in golf.

Heath Robinson occupies a particular place in the nation’s heart, but this is the first book to explain the technical and social background out of which the pictures grew and to connect the artistic output and the historical context. It’s a mammoth task, and beautifully done, and it reveals WHR as a visionary, with a sharp eye and a sharp brain, and the ability to be both kind and satirical simultaneously. He had a great sense of the absurd, but his humour is gentle. He pokes fun at the conventions of his day, responding to rapid social and technological changes that were turning the world on its head. He loved the gadgetry, but what he really loved were the people: it’s human foibles and human frailty that exude warmly from these illustrations. There’s no malice here.

Adam Hart-Davis is a huge Heath Robinson fan, and his own background in scientific/engineering television enables him to honour even the wackiest of WHR’s ideas with a practical eye. He’s drawn together stories and anecdotes that bring the illustrations to life, and he writes in an engaging, entertaining style. And there’s an equally admiring Forward by Philip Pullman, who suggests that the words National Treasure are insufficient to describe Heath Robinson: ‘We need something better… ‘Immortal Contraptioneer', or ‘Mighty Commander of the Preposterous’ or ‘Grand Celestial Mechanic of Absurdity’.’ Even the man himself couldn’t have put it better.

Adam Har-Davis's 'Very Heath Robinson: Stories of his Absurdly Ingenious World' is published by Sheldrake Press at £40.

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